This article was published in Dawn on September 12, 2021 and is available at the following link
DEBATES, commentaries and analyses about Electronic Voting Machines have been dominating the print and electronic media over the past three months or so, and it is likely that the subject will continue to take centre stage in the political discourse for the better part of the remaining two years of the present government’s term. Although the proposed introduction of EVMs in the general elections was just one of the 50 broad amendments recommended by the government in Elections Act 2017, through a new bill introduced in October 2020 and an ordinance promulgated in May 2021, the subject has been endlessly discussed to the almost total exclusion of the remaining 49 proposed amendments.
In the Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs which is so far the only parliamentary forum where the proposed bills have been debated threadbare, it was the EVMs which generated maximum excitement and news. The controversy over EVMs has not only pushed government relations with the opposition to an all-time low, the harshest and fiercest criticism of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) by federal ministers and spokespersons of the federal government was also made in the context of the voting machines. Since the remaining proposals to amend Elections Act 2017 were almost totally obscured by the frenzied debate on EVMs, very few people came to know about a number of useful and innovative ideas proposed by the government in the form of electoral amendments alongside some controversial proposals. While a previous article highlighted most of the controversial proposals for amending electoral laws including the EVMs and voting facility for overseas Pakistanis, some of the welcome amendment proposals by the government are discussed here.
To begin with, the Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2021, contains a number of proposals to ensure broader inclusion of relatively marginalised segments of society such as women, non-Muslim minorities, trans persons and physically handicapped persons in various aspects of the electoral process. This inclusion is proposed in training and public-awareness measures (Section 12), making it mandatory to extend special assistance to handicapped voters by polling officials (Section 84), counting a person as guilty of corrupt practices if he or she persuades any person to vote or to refrain from voting on the grounds of belonging to a gender along with other grounds already present in the law such as religion, province, community, race, caste, biradari, sect or tribe (Section 167). The bill also proposes that the required list of members for seeking the enlistment of a political party with the ECP should comprise at least 20 per cent women unlike the earlier case when no such condition was included in Section 202. Section 203 of the Elections Act, 2017, earlier required that political parties should encourage women to become members; it is now proposed to add persons with disabilities and trans persons along with women.
The remaining proposals to amend Elections Act 2017 were obscured by the frenzied debate on EVMs.
The proposed amendment bill not only seeks inclusivity, it also encourages greater transparency by specifically obligating the ECP to post a variety of information on its website. For example, civil society had been struggling to persuade the ECP to post the annual statements of legislators’ assets and liabilities on its website because the information is notified in the official gazette of the government but the ECP had been declining such requests on the grounds that the law (Section 38) does not specifically mention uploading on the ECP website. The Amendment Bill has now specifically included the provision of posting this information on the ECP website. The Amendment Bill also obligates the ECP to post election candidates’ initial and final lists on its website by amending Section 64 and Section 68. Section 92 is also proposed to be amended to enable the ECP to immediately upload provisional election results on its website.
Currently, the Elections Act requires political parties to submit a list of 2,000 members with the copies of their CNICs to the ECP for enlistment of a political party. It is now proposed to amend Section 202 to increase the number of members to 10,000. It may be intended to discourage very small political parties by increasing the minimum number of members but this measure will discourage the formation of new parties especially from smaller provinces. It may be a better idea to allow initial enlistment of political parties with 2,000 members but they may be required to submit a list of 10,000 members after, say, five years to retain the enlistment.
A novel idea to legally bind political parties to hold an annual convention has been proposed by seeking to insert a new Section 213-A in the Elections Act, 2017.
Each political party will also need to submit a report of its annual convention to the ECP mentioning at least top 10 problems of the country with reasons and their solutions reflecting the views of the majority of party members. Although much will depend on the faithful implementation of the law, the idea is commendable as it is expected to encourage better intra-party communication and greater internal policy discussions.
Despite the positive amendment proposals in the package introduced by the government, there were several proposals which were strongly objected to by the ECP on legal and other grounds and by the opposition parties for political reasons. The media reports indicate that while a showdown was witnessed during the discussion on EVMs in the Senate parliamentary affairs committee, compromise was reached on several other controversial proposals. It will be unfortunate and possibly a recipe for social and political discord if no consensus is reached on highly controversial items like EVMs. The most unfortunate aspect of the committee proceedings was one of the worst verbal assaults by some federal ministers on the ECP. It will be a pity that despite reaching the middle ground on a large portion of the proposed bill in the committee, a unilateral approach is resorted to in the planned joint session of parliament.